The Scholarly Translation Rears Its Head

February 15, 2009

Another review of Malcolm Lyons’s new translation of the 1001 Nights, this one even more disappointed in the sex scenes than the last one we linked to. Elspeth Barker, ruined for honest work by Borges’s nefarious celebrations of infidelitous but felicitous variations on the original in past translations, and by the apparently quite titillating version perpetrated by Mardrus and then Mathers, condemns Lyons’s “painstaking plainness of . . . diction.” Admittedly, the passages she pulls out do fall rather flat:

‘Now,’ said the old woman, ‘you have achieved your goal. There will be no more blows and there is only one thing left. It is a habit of my mistress that, when she is drunk, she will not let anyone have her until she has stripped off her clothes, including her harem trousers, and is entirely naked. Then she will tell you to remove your own clothes and to start running, while she runs in front of you as though she was trying to escape from you. You must follow her from place to place, until you have an erection, and she will then let you take her.’

The problem, of course, isn’t simply excessive fidelity, as both Barker and van Gelder point out the oddly clinical tone given to the translation by the choice to use “penis” and “vagina” for very common words for genitalia in Arabic. Barker pleads compellingly for “rampant zabbs” to replace any anti-poetic erections in Lyons’s translation.

Also, “as though she was”? Seriously? In a translation that uses “semi-paralyzed” instead of “crippled,” and says “she will tell you to remove your own clothes and to start running” [emphasis mine] like a schoolmarm, this one might rank with “penis” for striking a jarring note.



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